Built in a neoclassical style in the 1930s, 142-150 Arlington Road in Camden, north London, initially housed an electricity substation, but by the 1950s the building was redundant and Camden Council acquired it for use as a sports centre. By 2010 it was deemed superfluous to requirements and sold to property group A2 Dominion/Kingsbury with support for a change-of-use to residential. Recently the resulting development has been completed by architect Studio 54.
Located within the Camden Town Conservation Area, the former substation was identified as a ‘positive building’ and therefore worthy of retention. The principle west frontage on Arlington Road featured windows that opened to the original turbine hall, while the south and east facades were largely windowless. The building filled the site, with no external spaces. Studio 54’s key challenge was to integrate the retained facade with residential requirements, which included new floors, windows and external terraces and balconies.
The two principal facades were retained and the rear facade replaced, and five new floors built, with a setback floor above the existing parapet. The floor heights were adjusted to correspond to the pattern of openings facing Arlington Road, with cills lowered and a central entrance formed. The window frames were replaced in a style that reflects the character of the retained facade. The lift, stairs and corridors are in the centre of the plan and the apartments include a mix of flats and duplex units, some single-aspect, some dual-aspect. The third floor apartments facing Arlington Road are set back to create terraces. The existing corner bay at the back of the building on Stanmore Place has been retained, but the rest of the facade has been replaced by a new stepped intervention that brings daylight into the deep-plan, set-back entrances, terraces and balconies and forms an active frontage. New doors and window openings are generously sized and the recessed parts are clad in white brick mitred to the stock brick, which forms the outer facade. The affordable accommodation comprises larger units accessed from Stanmore Place, and the for-sale units are located on the ground and upper floors with access from the Arlington Road entrance.
For the architects, the project felt like “an object lesson in understanding the tensions that characterise development in inner-city areas”. This was a protected building in a conservation area that had outlived both its original function and a later change-of-use; the council finance department was keen to generate funds to support under-resourced local services and therefore determined to squeeze everything possible out of the site sale; the housing market promised riches for the right development in the right location; the planning department was determined to protect this ‘historic asset’ and to obtain the regulation quantity of ‘affordable housing’ funded out of the ‘for sale’ units; and the site came loaded with problems that could compromise a viable housing development, with a protected facade with few windows, a very deep plan, a cavernous interior and no external space.
“In 2011 we were scanning for project opportunities and saw that Camden were marketing the old electricity substation in the heart of Camden Town with a feasibility study produced by architect Matthew Lloyd”, says Studio 54. “We were put in touch with developer A2D and contractor Kingsbury by housing consultants Annie Evans and Paul Canty, and produced a number of alternative feasibility studies seeking to maximise the number of housing units on the site ahead of a bid and including demolition and redevelopment.
“Once the site was purchased we embarked on a pre-application process, and it became immediately obvious that demolition and redevelopment would be impossible because of the sensitivity of the heritage and conservation issues. A series of pre-application meetings with the planning and conservation officers established common ground in recognising the importance of the existing building, although disagreement about the extent of demolition necessary and desirable. A planning application was submitted in 2013 but refused, but an appeal and hearing led to approval in September 2014.
“The decisions which have been key to converting the building revolved around retaining sufficient of the existing facade to preserve the historic context while introducing enough well-lit accommodation into the deep plan to make the project viable. The fact that the original substation had been designed to resemble a renaissance townhouse gave the task of conversion to a modern residential building an added frisson. The modulation of the front facade, the addition of windows into the massive window-less side facade, the replacement of the rear facade and the stepping of the plan and section, each move has opened the internal spaces to good daylight and generous terraces and balconies. Five new floors have been constructed with floor to ceiling heights dictated by the principal existing window openings and ranging from 2.7m to 3.4m.
“It would be easy as an architect to dismiss the concerns of the conservation/design officers as being conservation obsessed and at times it felt that dogma was prevailing over design logic and empathy. Certainly the process was fraught and opinions became polarized, particularly during the appeal process at which stage the stakes become significant. There is no doubt that the project has become more interesting as a result of the need to compromise on our earlier ambitions and in an attempt to satisfy the concerns of the officers. In this process we were helped by conservation consultant Andrew Brown of Woodhall, and we had the benefits of a determined client and a brilliant QC at the appeal.
“For us the project challenged the value of architectural heritage over the aspirations for renewal. It challenged our ability to identify, visualise and communicate the value of change. It was clear that some of the opposition to change was rooted in a general fear that what is proposed is inferior to what is existing and that the aspirations at the design stage are rarely translated into projects of enduring quality when built. The evidence to support this attitude is all around, in Camden as elsewhere.
“The project celebrates and enhances the facades of the original neoclassical industrial building while juxtaposing a contextual contemporary architecture, sensitive to the original with a bespoke design language that is functional and disciplined as well as being optimistic, informal and in areas boldly sculptural. The project enhances the Conservation Area and brings life and activity to a corner of Camden that has been sidelined and run down for decades. There remain opportunities to be realised, and our relatively modest proposal for landscaping the semi-derelict car park area to the east of the site has not been implemented. The fact that the project evolved from a decision to refuse a planning application, which was overturned on appeal, has added to the sense of achievement.”